SILVERTON — As the clock approached 5 a.m., the sun still tucked behind the mountains, they emerged bleary-eyed from the shadows and lined alongside the Silverton High School gym.
It is known at the Hardrock 100 as “The Golden Hour” — the final 60 minutes before the 48-hour cutoff for finishing this 100.5-mile odyssey through the rugged San Juan Mountains, a run that requires athletes to climb nearly 33,000 feet.
A small cadre of fans, crew members, run officials and runners who have already finished gather to cheer and support the last runners who will finish and be known as true Hardrockers.
Among them is Kilian Jornet, the Spanish super athlete who some 24 hours earlier had won this run despite suffering a dislocated shoulder. He stood unassuming in a blue down jacket and long black pants, his arm still wrapped in a gauze sling, a camera around his neck, another face in the crowd.
“It’s the same journey and experience for everybody. That’s why I want to be here to talk to people and what they’ve experienced and share some moments of the race,” Jornet told The Denver Post. “All the runners are here chatting with each other. To be part of the same experience — you can be here running, crewing or volunteering. It’s the same level of importance.”
At 5:49 a.m., Robert Andrulis, 49, rounded the turn toward the high school and trotted to kiss the Hardrock marking the end of his nearly 48-hour journey as the final finisher in this year’s event. Jornet walked up and shook his hand — a 29-year-old prodigy who has set speed records shaking hands with an everyman 20 years his senior, sharing their accomplishment. For Andrulis, a nighttime equipment manager, it was his 10th Hardrock finish.
Daniel Petty, Special to The Denver Post
Kilian Jornet, left, the winner of the Hardrock 100, speaks with Robert Andrulis, center, the last finisher, who had just completed the Hardrock 100 endurance run through the San Juan Mountains after nearly 48 hours, as Liz Bauer, right, the second-to-last finisher, looks on July 16, 2017, in Silverton, Colorado. Andrulis finished in 47 hours, 49 minute, 20 seconds.
“I get free train tickets,” Andrulis joked, referencing the Durango-to-Silverton train round trip the last finisher is awarded each year. “What do they call the last finisher of any race? A finisher. Everyone out here is family. That’s all that matters.”
Jornet offered Andrulis, who lives in Arizona, congratulations. “I said, ‘Congratulations on running with that busted up body part of yours,’ ” Andrulis said.
Of the 145 runners who started at 6 a.m. Friday, 126 finished the looping course through Silverton, Lake City, Ouray and Telluride, marking the highest number of finishers ever at the event, said run director Dale Garland. The run has soared in popularity in recent years, attracting 2,000 applications for this year’s event, up from 1,200 just a few years ago for its 145 slots. It has gained more corporate sponsorship as ultrarunning’s popularity has soared.
And despite the attention, the run has earnestly maintained the feel of a close-knit annual family reunion — the Sunday morning awards are referred to as “graduation,” and the Silverton High School gym is packed wall to wall with 500 people. That ambiance is the reason often cited by professional athletes and laypeople alike who make the annual journey to the San Juan Mountains. Jornet, who has little left to accomplish here after four wins, intends to return next year, he said.
In the race’s final miles, at Putnam Ridge, Jeffery Hart of Bellingham, Wash., proposed to his longtime girlfriend, Jennifer Thistle. He carried the ring 92 miles on a keychain in his pack, nervously checking periodically to make sure it was still there. He and his young son had selected the ring. Thistle was going to pace him for the final 11 miles.
“I wanted to make sure I could get there,” said Hart, 48, who was running in his first Hardrock. “I was motivated to finish.”
“We get to the spot,and I said, ‘We should really take a (picture); this is amazing.’ It was a high point, high on a ridge. You can see 50 miles in any direction. So I said, ‘Let me get down and get my phone out.’ And then I said, ‘My legs, I can’t get up. Will you give me your hand?’ She reached down, gave me her hand, and I said, ‘Jennifer Joy Thistle. There is nothing in the world more…’ And at some point, she said, ‘Shut up, are you serious?’
“I said, ‘None of this race would be possible without you. To try to finish this race without you knowing how integral you are in that — how much you have been central to making it happen, wouldn’t be fair. And I can’t think of a more beautiful place for that to happen.’ ”
Even those who don’t get a chance to run journey to Hardrock anyway. The annual lottery produces a wait list of those hoping to get their shot. As participants drop out because of an injury or other reasons, waitlisted runners get a chance to run, something Steve Collins of Durango was hoping for. Twelve days out, after starting at 13th on the list in December, he was moved to the top of the list.
“I’ve been preparing like I was getting in all along,” Collins said.
He tapered his training, set up his drop bags and crew, attended the orientation meeting, and woke up Friday preparing as if he were running an ultramarathon. Collins has either volunteered or paced runners for seven years. After learning at 5:53 a.m. he wouldn’t get in, he volunteered to pace another runner later in the race.
“It’s Hardrock. I would have been here anyway,” Collins said. “It’s Christmas in July. It’s what I do for this time. … You know what? I’ll get in next year. … This is my tribe.”